"That's it- they were ethereal!"
A few weeks ago I was reminiscing with Nic, an old friend from University, about a gig twenty two years and four days in our past, when it seemed that everybody we knew at the time was in the same place, watching the same thing.
I am nineteen, and my favourite band in the whole world is The Chills, a band from my new adopted home of Dunedin, now ten years old and touring the biggest album of their careers, the impeccable Submarine Bells. I first heard this album in its last lines lulling quietly out the door of Roi Colbert's legendary music shop in Stuart Street, Records Records. Like a lot of young local bands, Roi had been very good to my group, indulging us in our visits and playing our demo for visitors, even pointing overseas guests to our gigs when they arrived wanting to hear something reminiscent of The Dunedin Sound. It was fair enough, because that was the sound we liked as a band. That was the kind of band I wanted to be in, so that was the style of music I wrote. The Chills, a melodious and almost juvenile band, were then the peak of what a Dunedin band was to me; I inhaled their music, scrutinising their lyrics and trying to see if I could see the same things their leader Martin Phillipps might have been seeing when he wrote songs like I Soar, Green Eyed Owl, or Night of Chill Blue. The love affair had started at high school, through my first year of University (when I bought their entire available back catalogue second hand on vinyl from Records Records - it was that easy back then), and ended two years later, with the disappointing Soft Bomb and the virtual demise of the band as a unit.
The Dunedin Town Hall gig was the final night of a large tour, and was a big deal. The Chills were the new New Zealand success story, having flown the Flying Nun coop and signed to Slash (a Warners subsidiary), their anthemic Heavenly Pop Hit struck at just the right time to grab a country's sesquicentennial consciousness. On their return to Phillipps' home town they were given a mayoral reception and instead of the usual venues, the Town Hall, more often reserved for international acts and Univerity graduation.
With a belly full of home-cooked rabbit I joined my friends and we set off with bandmates, flatmates, girlfriends, and all of the former to be in the future, to the Octagon. It was, aptly, freezing cold, but the snow had left the hills by that time of year, as I recall. Inside the Town Hall was, it seemed, everyone we knew, fans or not. My future wife was there, though neither of us had yet met, and Nic was a few rows behind my bassist and I, who ploughed to stage right as soon as the lights went down, hugging a foldback so as not to be drawn into the crowd, and squinting at the guitarists to work out their chord changes among the songs. The band was at its peak in profile and performance, and everything seemed to go on slow motion, especially the transcendental opening song:
After a rousing and rowdy encore we left in the cold midnight air to our respective abodes, peeling off in ones and twos as we ambled further into north Dunedin. At my flat I collapsed onto my bed, scrawled what I could remember of the setlist in my diary, closed it and went off to sleep with the beginnings of a lifetime's tinnitus ringing in my ear.
I would see The Chills play roughly half a dozen times later over the next ten years, but nothing matched that one night when a still-young man of twenty-seven, his glittering blue guitar and fellow travellers held the youth of his home town in their hands.
My memorised Set list*: The Night of Chill Blue Part Past, Part Fiction Don't Be Memory I Love My Leather Jacket Pink Frost Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn Wet Blanket Whole Lot of Non Going On Look For the Good in Others and They'll See the Good in You Creep Dark Carnival Submarine Bells Sweet Times Effloresce and Deliquesce Familiarity Breeds Contempt Heavenly Pop Hit Oncoming Day Doledrums I Saw Your Silhouette Kaleidoscope World What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? Smile from a Dead Dead Face [unknown encore] [* The memory cheats, of course. This may or may not bear things out, but a set list from an Australian gig later that same year with many of the same tracks can be found here] From a Dead Dead Face - Melbourne, Australia 6/9/90